Dear White People: My "Classic" Movies Are Different Than Yours

Photo: Photofest.
Lorenz Tate and Nia Long in 1997's "Love Jones."
I've been a movie-lover for as long as I can remember. When most kids were outside during the summer — I don't know, playing sports or something — I was in the house with my younger sister watching some of our favorite films. (My parents like to say we were "air-conditioned children.")

So at a previous job, when I received an assignment to roundup classic movies, I figured it would be a piece of cake. I began scribbling down the dozens of titles that came to mind, but when my then-editor began naming films like Citizen Kane, Chinatown, and Vertigo, I just stared at her. I'd never seen any of those.

"You can't be a real pop culture writer and never have seen all of the classic movies!" she said. I was surprised (and a little embarrassed) to discover just how different my definition of classic movies was from hers — and, apparently, the majority of film buffs.

Later that night, I cried. At that point, there were many (much more difficult) obstacles I'd had to navigate as a brown woman trying to break her way into the media industry, but I thought I had the whole pop culture thing on lock. I'd never considered that my Black and Latina upbringing might have given me a blind spot that could hinder my ability to accurately write about art.

You see, for me, classic movies are the likes of Love & Basketball, Selena, and Mahogany — coming-of-age stories that were relatable or aspirational for a young brown woman. My awareness of what everyone else considered classic movies was pretty much limited to Singin' in The Rain and Breakfast at Tiffany's; I had no clue that in the mainstream (and even amongst my white friends and colleagues), most of my favorite movies were actually unheard of — and that there were dozens of "must-see" films out there that I hadn't, uh, seen.
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Photo: Everett Collection.
Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla in the 1997 biopic "Selena."
I decided that if I wanted to be a pop culture writer who could keep up with the best of them, I had a lot of catching up to do. I proceeded to essentially put myself through my very own History Of Non-Brown Film 101: After work, I'd watch everything from Ben-Hur and The Graduate to Dr. Strangelove and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (I had already seen Gone With The Wind, of course, but still refused to consider it a classic because — well, racism.)

I perused old articles in Vanity Fair, read biographies of actresses, and became a regular listener of You Must Remember This, a podcast that tells the unknown "and/or forgotten" stories of Hollywood's golden era. My motivation? To never again, as both an entertainment writer and new adult, find myself in a situation where I felt out of the loop when it came to popular culture. And along the way, it began to feel less like work and more like fun: I became fascinated by the antics of Joan Crawford and added Annie Hall, Sunset Boulevard, and a handful of Hitchcock movies to my most-treasured list.

But then, about a year ago, on a particularly rough day when I needed some comfort, I turned on some of my original favorites. I spent the day curled up watching Darius (Larenz Tate) and Nina's (Nia Long) poetic romance unfurl, verse by verse, in Love Jones; watched the pre-wedding night fight climax in The Best Man through my fingers (even though I had seen what was going to happen about a thousand times), and cheered for Angela Bassett's character when she lights her cheating husband's car on fire in Waiting to Exhale. These were my classics — and also the beloved stories of many of my fellow Black and Latino friends and peers. (In fact, in a quick poll while writing this article, they named all of the above, in addition to everything from Boyz n The Hood and A Bronx Tale to Aladdin and Space Jam.)

And differing views on what makes a movie (or TV show, or album, for that matter) classic isn't just cultural, but also generational. While my parents named The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather as their choices, many people in my age bracket would say that Mean Girls, Titanic, Amélie, and Clueless are classics. These are films most twenty- or thirtysomethings can quote with their eyes closed, yet they likely won't be found in any catalogue of film standards. And my own classic films starring mostly Black casts are also influenced by my generation; Black movie-lovers a few decades older than I am are more likely to name Shaft, Foxy Brown, or Cooley High, while folks a few years ahead of me would include Do The Right Thing, Boomerang, and Juice.

This all raises some important questions when it comes to the history of film in our culture: What, exactly, defines a classic film? Is it simply something that has stood the test of time? And who's to say what standing the test of time means? Is it a room full of white Academy voters? Journalists? Self-designated film critics? What time period are we even considering? Is it fair that most of the films that are considered "classic" come from an era when there weren't very many brown folks allowed on the big screen — or women who weren't in sexist or objectified roles?

Filmsite defines classic movies as "distinguished or unique works of cinema that have transcended time and trends...classic films are often universal favorites that hold up after repeated re-screenings." Sounds pretty open to interpretation. For me and many people of color, our classics fit into that description of "universal favorites" that have "transcended time and trends." And yet, we'll never see them included in any official roundups.
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Photo: Photofest.
Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps in 2000's "Love & Basketball."
So perhaps I wasn't the only one with a blind spot when it came to historic films. Don't mainstream media and white moviegoers also have a blind spot when it comes to our classics? After all, it was absurd to me that many viewers had no idea who Taraji P. Henson was before Empire or that when I once brought up Regina Hall and Sanaa Lathan in a meeting with white colleagues, they had no idea who these actresses were. In "Black Hollywood," they are legends.

Yet, I never would have said to any of my coworkers, "What?! You can't be a real pop culture writer if you haven't seen these films!" If, as an "other," I'm expected to make the effort to learn the mostly white, "mainstream" classics, shouldn't the mainstream also have to make more of an effort to learn about the "other's" movies, too? (And yes, that applies to this very site. Sorry, guys.)

While my then-editor's comment may have been a tough (and blunt) career moment, I'm grateful that she pushed me to expand my horizons — for work purposes and also because she opened a whole new world of film for my own personal enjoyment. But looking back, I wish I had pointed out to her that the door to that world swings both ways. Just like it's assumed that brown folk should assimilate and learn a popular culture outside of their own, the same expectation should be extended to non-people of color who consider themselves film buffs, experts, or critics. (FYI, I'm happy to give anyone who asks a syllabus for their very own History Of Brown Film 101.)

So while my own classic films list now does include It's A Wonderful Life and Rear Window, it will also always, always include Brown Sugar, Real Women Have Curves, Paid In Full, The Wood, Finding Forrester, Raising Victor Vargas, and, yes, Love & Basketball. Hey, guess what? Even with such a varied list, I became a real pop culture writer, after all. Go figure.

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